Underscoring the importance of congressional votes on war in a representative democracy, The Wall Street Journal reports that American lawmakers "are weighing whether to take up the bigger question of whether to explicitly authorize military action against Islamic State when they return after the November elections," adding this scandalous fact: "Leaders are reluctant to do so now because of the risks involved in taking such a tough vote before the elections."
Precisely to escape electoral accountability, Congress is evading a core job responsibility. In doing so, they're depriving the country of the very different debate we'd be having if a new war were an election issue rather than the unilateral decree of a lame duck president who'll never again need to face the electorate.
But if Congress is loath to vote on American air strikes in Iraq and Syria, the House of Representatives has, to its credit, taken a vote on arming a faction of Syrian rebels. Proponents of this plan—one Obama initiated unilaterally long before the vote, by the way—say it is the best way to combat ISIS and the Assad regime. The plan's critics worry U.S. weapons will find their way into the hands of ISIS or other jihadists, or that the intervention will have other unintended consequences.
"The president, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and top White House officials personally lobbied for the measure’s passage, calling more than 70 Democrats and Republicans on national security committees and in leadership posts to appeal for their support," The New York Times reported, adding that "Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, actively and strongly backed the legislation," portraying it as a modest step.
Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, articulated objections to the proposal on Facebook:
The amendment’s focus—arming groups fighting the Assad government in Syria—has little to do with defeating ISIS. The mission that the amendment advances plainly isn’t the defeat of ISIS; it’s the defeat of Assad ... If Congress chooses to arm groups in Syria, it must explain to the American people not only why that mission is necessary but also the sacrifices that that mission entails. The Obama administration has tried to rally support for U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war by implying that our help would be at arm’s length. The amendment Congress will vote on broadly authorizes “assistance” to groups in Syria. It does not specify what types of weapons our government will give the groups. It does not prohibit boots on the ground ... It does not state the financial cost of the war. As we should have learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must plan for multiple satisfactory ends to military conflicts before we commence them.
If the Syrian groups that are “appropriately vetted” (the amendment’s language) succeed and oust Assad, what would result? Would the groups assemble a coalition government of anti-Assad fighters, and would that coalition include ISIS? What would happen to the Alawites and Christians who stood with Assad?
To what extent would the U.S. government be obligated to occupy Syria to rebuild the government? If each of the groups went its own way, would Syria’s territory be broken apart, and if so, would ISIS control one of the resulting countries? If the Syrian groups that we support begin to lose, would we let them be defeated? If not, is there any limit to American involvement in the war? Perhaps some in the administration or Congress have answers to these questions. But the amendment we’ll vote on today contains none of them. Above all, when Congress considers serious actions—especially war—we must be humble about what we think we know. We don’t know very much about the groups we propose to support or even how we intend to vet those groups. Reports in the last week suggest that some of the “appropriately vetted” groups have struck deals with ISIS, although the groups dispute the claim. The amendment requires the administration to report on its efforts to prevent our arms and resources from ending up in the wrong hands, but we know little about those precautions or their effectiveness.
Today, I will vote against the amendment to arm groups in Syria. There is a wide misalignment between the rhetoric of defeating ISIS and the amendment’s actual mission of arming certain groups in the Syrian civil war. The amendment provides few limits on the type of assistance that our government may commit, and the exit out of the civil war is undefined. And given what’s happened in our country’s most recent wars, our leaders seem to have unjustified confidence in their own ability to execute a plan with so many unknowns.
Presuming that the Senate passes a similar amendment and the Obama administration continues to arm Syrian rebels, future events will show who exercised better judgment—its supporters or opponents like Amash. I'll therefore conclude with a resource for the future. Let us not forget that the following members of Congress felt that arming a faction in Syria's civil war was a good idea:
Bachus, Barber, Barletta, Barr, Barrow (GA), Bass, Beatty, Becerra, Benishek, Bera (CA), Bilirakis, Bishop (GA), Bishop (NY), Bishop (UT), Black, Blackburn, Blumenauer, Boehner, Bonamici, Boustany, Brady (PA), Brady (TX), Braley (IA), Brooks (IN), Brown (FL), Brownley (CA), Buchanan, Bucshon, Bustos, Butterfield, Byrne, Calvert, Camp, Capito, Cárdenas, Carney, Carson (IN), Carter, Cartwright, Cassidy, Castor (FL), Castro (TX), Chabot, Chaffetz, Chu, Clay, Clyburn, Coble, Coffman, Cohen, Cole, Collins (GA), Collins (NY), Conaway, Connolly, Conyers, Cook, Costa, Cotton, Courtney, Cramer, Crawford, Crenshaw, Crowley, Cuellar, Culberson, Daines, Davis (CA), Davis (Rodney), DeGette, Delaney, DelBene, Denham, Deutch, Diaz-Balart, Dingell, Ellison, Ellmers, Engel, Enyart, Farenthold, Fattah, Fitzpatrick, Fleischmann, Flores, Forbes, Fortenberry, Foster, Foxx, Franks (AZ), Frelinghuysen, Gallego, Garcia, Gardner, Gerlach, Gibbs, Goodlatte, Granger, Graves (GA), Graves (MO), Green, Al, Green, Gene, Griffin (AR), Griffith (VA), Grimm, Guthrie, Hall, Hanna, Harper, Hartzler, Hastings (WA), Heck (WA), Hensarling, Herrera Beutler, Higgins, Hinojosa, Holding, Horsford, Hoyer, Hudson, Hultgren, Israel, Issa, Jackson Lee, Jenkins, Johnson (GA), Johnson (OH), Joyce, Kaptur, Kelly (PA), Kildee, Kilmer, Kind, King (IA), King (NY), Kingston, Kinzinger (IL), Kirkpatrick, Kline, Kuster, LaMalfa, Lamborn, Lance, Langevin, Lankford, Larsen (WA), Latham, Latta, Levin, Lipinski, LoBiondo, Loebsack, Long, Lowey, Lucas, Luetkemeyer, Lujan Grisham (NM), Lynch, Marchant, Marino, Matheson, McAllister, McCarthy (CA), McCarthy (NY), McCaul, McHenry, McIntyre, McKeon, McKinley, McMorris Rodgers, McNerney, Meehan, Meeks, Messer, Mica, Miller (MI), Miller, Gary, Moran, Mullin, Murphy (FL), Murphy (PA), Neal, Noem, Nunes, Olson, Owens, Pascrell, Paulsen, Pearce, Pelosi, Perlmutter, Peters (CA), Peters (MI), Peterson, Pittenger, Pompeo, Price (NC), Quigley, Rahall, Reed, Reichert, Renacci, Rice (SC), Richmond, Rigell, Roby, Roe (TN), Rogers (AL), Rogers (KY), Rogers (MI), Rokita, Ros-Lehtinen, Roskam, Ross, Roybal-Allard, Royce, Ruiz, Runyan, Ruppersberger, Ryan (OH), Ryan (WI), Sánchez (Linda), Sarbanes, Scalise, Schakowsky, Schiff, Schneider, Schock, Schrader, Schwartz, Schweikert, Scott (VA), Scott (David), Sessions, Sewell (AL), Sherman, Shimkus, Shuster, Sinema, Smith (MO), Smith (NE), Smith (TX), Smith (WA), Southerland, Stewart, Stivers, Thompson (PA), Thornberry, Tiberi, Turner, Upton, Valadao, Vargas, Veasey, Vela, Wagner, Walberg, Walden, Walorski, Walz, Wasserman Schultz, Waters, Waxman, Webster (FL), Wenstrup, Wilson (FL), Wilson (SC), Wittman, Womack, Woodall, Yarmuth, Yoder, Young (AK)
In contrast, the following legislators opposed arming a faction in Syria's civil war:
Aderholt, Amash, Amodei, Bachmann, Bentivolio, Bridenstine, Brooks (AL), Broun (GA), Burgess, Campbell, Capps, Capuano, Cicilline, Clark (MA), Clarke (NY), Clawson (FL), Cleaver, Cooper, Cummings, Davis (Danny), DeFazio, DeLauro, Dent, DeSantis, Doggett, Doyle, Duckworth, Duffy, Duncan (SC), Duncan (TN), Edwards, Eshoo, Esty, Farr, Fincher, Fleming, Frankel (FL), Fudge, Gabbard, Garamendi, Garrett, Gibson, Gingrey (GA), Gohmert, Gosar, Gowdy, Grayson, Grijalva, Gutiérrez, Hahn, Hanabusa, Harris, Hastings (FL), Heck (NV), Himes, Holt, Honda, Huelskamp, Huffman, Huizenga (MI), Hunter, Hurt, Jeffries, Johnson (E. B.), Johnson (Sam), Jolly, Jones, Jordan, Keating, Kelly (IL), Kennedy, Labrador, Larson (CT), Lee (CA), Lewis, Lofgren, Lowenthal, Luján (Ben Ray), Lummis, Maffei, Maloney (Carolyn), Maloney (Sean), Massie, Matsui, McClintock, McCollum, McDermott, McGovern, Meadows, Meng, Michaud, Miller (FL), Miller (George), Moore, Mulvaney, Nadler, Napolitano, Negrete (McLeod), Neugebauer, Nolan, Nugent, O'Rourke, Palazzo, Pallone, Pastor (AZ), Payne, Perry, Petri, Pingree (ME), Pitts, Pocan, Poe (TX), Polis, Posey, Price (GA), Rangel, Ribble, Rohrabacher, Rooney, Rothfus, Rush, Salmon, Sanchez (Loretta), Sanford, Scott (Austin), Sensenbrenner, Serrano, Shea-Porter, Simpson, Sires, Slaughter, Smith (NJ), Speier, Stockman, Stutzman, Swalwell (CA), Takano, Terry, Thompson (CA), Thompson (MS), Tierney, Tipton, Titus, Tonko, Tsongas, Van Hollen, Velázquez, Visclosky, Weber (TX), Welch, Westmoreland, Whitfield, Williams, Wolf, Yoho, Young (IN)
A definitive assessment of arming the rebels may only come after Obama is in retirement, perhaps doing oil-paint portraits of cats, but many of these House members, along with a healthy number of senators, will still be in office. May they be rewarded or punished for their judgment as appropriate.